The best diving spots are often half across the country – or the world. This means that you have to fly there and back, often within a short period of time. What many divers fail to take into account though is that flying after scuba diving can be quite dangerous, if you aren’t careful about what you are doing.
Regardless of what you might have heard, you can hop onto a flight shortly after scuba diving. Rather, you need to wait for a set period of time before you can board a plane. Now, you can learn about all of this, and more by reading the following article:
- Scuba Diving and Flying: What’s the Problem?
- How Long Do You Have to Wait Before Flying?
- Symptoms to Watch Out For
- Treating Decompression Sickness Due to Flying
- How to Reduce the Risk of Decompression Sickness
Scuba Diving and Flying: What’s the Problem?
You may be wondering what’s so bad about getting on a plane shortly after going on a dive. Well, the real concern here is for the risk of decompression sickness. This is also known as DCS or “the bends”. It involves the formation of nitrogen bubbles inside the bloodstream due to extreme pressure changes.
To get a better understanding of decompression sickness and its relation to flying, let’s take a closer look at this phenomenon…
Scuba Diving and Nitrogen
When you go scuba diving, you are breathing in around 79 percent nitrogen. The actual amount depends on the specific blend of the gas in your tank. As you dive deeper, the pressure around you begins to increase. Due to this, your tissues begin to absorb nitrogen.
As long as you remain at pressure, the nitrogen in your tissues doesn’t pose a threat. However, if the pressure around you decreases too quickly, then there can be an issue. During such a situation, the nitrogen will come out of solution and form bubbles in your tissues as well as your bloodstream.
When these bubbles enter your blood and tissues, a number of different reactions can take place. Sometimes, the only problem is joint pain. However, in more serious cases, these bubbles can cause lung and circulatory issues.
Flying and DCS
As mentioned above, DCS becomes an issue when the pressure around you drops low too quickly after you have been diving. When this happens, the nitrogen that is still trapped in your tissues can begin to dispel more quickly, forming larger and larger bubbles.
Understand, most commercial planes will fly at pressures of almost 2500 feet or 0.76 ATA. This is a marked difference from the 3.0 ATA or so that you experienced when diving. It is this sudden and extreme change that can result in DCS.
How Long Do You Have to Wait Before Flying?
Clearly, flying shortly after going on a dive is a bad idea. However, how long do you need to wait before it is safe for you to fly again? The answer to this question is a lot trickier than many people anticipate. In reality, the exact post-dive interval does depend on a number of factors. This includes how long you were diving for as well as long your future flight will be as well.
PADI has offered up a rough guide for this, though, so here are the rules to follow:
For Dives Within Decompression Limits
- Single Dives: if you have only gone diving once during a twenty four hour period, then you should have a pre-flight surface interval of around 12 hours, at least.
- Multi-Day/ Repetitive Dives: these regulations are for those who have either dived several times in one day or gone diving on consecutive days. Here, you will need to have a break of at least 18 hours before you can board a flight.
For Dives Requiring Decompression Stops
If your dive is long enough to need decompression stops, then you are going to need to have a longer interval. Most experts agree that you should wait between 18 and 24 hours before flying. The longer that you wait, the less chance there is of you developing decompression sickness.
If you really don’t want to take a risk with your health, you should leave room for a pre-flight surface interval for at least 24 hours. This will ensure that there is sufficient time for the nitrogen to safely leave your body.
Symptoms to Watch Out For
It should be noted that there is always a risk of DCS occurring, even when you have been careful about waiting on the ground for an appropriate amount of time. This is why it is important for you to know what some of the symptoms are and how to treat this condition.
You should also be aware that these symptoms may not always present while you are flying. Sometimes, they may only appear once you have landed. So, if you do notice any of the issues mentioned below, there is still a possibility that you are experiencing DCS-related health concerns.
Now, the precise symptoms of decompression sickness will depend on where the nitrogen bubbles congregate the most. So, based on this, here are the problems that are most likely to manifest:
- Deep pain at the joints that can either be mild or severe
- Movement of the joint can increase the pain levels
- The discomfort can show up when you are in the air, when the plane is descending, or even hours later.
- Confusion or loss of memory
- Vision impairment or problems
- Unexplained extreme tiredness
- Changes in behavior
- Vomiting or nausea
- Dizziness or unconsciousness
- Sensation of tingling, burning, or stinging in the lower chest or back
- Chest or stomach pain
- Discomfort may start at the legs and move up
- General sensations of numbness, tingling, or stinging
- Twitching or weakness of muscles
- Difficulty controlling bowels or bladder
- Burning sensation in chest, under the sternum
- Shortness of breath
- Continuous dry cough
- Discomfort worsened by breathing
- Itching around face, neck, torso, and upper limbs
- Mottled, itchy skin on torso
- Feeling of insects crawling on skin
- Swelling of the skin
Treating Decompression Sickness Due to Flying
If you do happen to experience DCS symptoms while flying you should inform someone on board. The most common treatment for any of the above symptoms is to breathe in 100 percent oxygen. Even if you do experience a decrease in the symptoms after this, the plane will need to begin descending immediately and make an emergency landing. It is important that you get off that flight as soon as possible.
It is up to a medical professional to determine how your treatment should proceed. In many instances, though, a doctor will probably recommend that you be placed in a hyperbaric chamber for a certain period of time.
How to Reduce the Risk of Decompression Sickness
Considering just how serious it can be to fly after scuba diving, you should know how to minimize these risks. So, here are some of the things to take into consideration:
Know If You Are At Elevated Risk
If you have a higher body fat content, there may be a greater chance of developing DCS. While fat only makes up around 15 percent of the average adult, it has a tendency to store half of the total nitrogen in it. So, someone with more fat cells will absorb nitrogen in greater amounts.
You should also be a bit more careful if you are older. Understand, the circulatory system becomes less efficient the more that you age. Due to this, the body of older individuals will have a harder time getting rid of the accumulated nitrogen.
Avoid Diving to Limits
Do you need to fly off shortly after diving? If so, you may want to avoid diving to limits. The deeper that you dive, the more nitrogen that your body will store up. This will also happen when you go on consecutive dives, with relatively short breaks in between.
As you can imagine, your body is going to need a longer time to dispel the built-up nitrogen and so, flying shortly after can be dangerous. If you do want to go on longer dives, do so during the earlier portion of your trip. Make sure that your last dives are short so that your body has enough of time to adapt to the pressure changes.
Dive in Warm Water
If you need to fly out only a day or two after scuba diving, you should try to dive in warmer waters. Understand, cool or cold water will cool your body which means that extremities will receive less blood circulation. This, in turn, will slow the rate at which the nitrogen is dispelled from your body.
Sudden Temperature Changes
Are you someone who enjoys taking warm or hot showers after scuba diving? Well, you may want to hold off on this for a while. Warm water causes your capillaries to dilate, cutting down how much blood is received to certain areas of the body. The result of this is that these areas can’t get rid of the built-up nitrogen as easily.
The Final Takeaway
So, to wrap things up, remember that you should try to stay on the ground for around twelve to twenty four hours after scuba diving. The longer that you have been diving for, the more time that you will have to wait before you can fly out. It is important to follow these guidelines if you want to avoid the risk of decompression sickness.
You should also take care of your health before, during, and after your diving trip as well. The healthier that you are, the less likely you are to develop any adverse symptoms. Now, that you are aware of all of the risks, you also know just how to avoid them in the future.